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PRESIDENT JIMMY CARTER: I would say that my life after the White House has been perhaps most enjoyable and most gratifying of all the other periods of my life.
KEITH PORTER: This week on Common Ground, reflections from former President Jimmy Carter. And the history behind the Middle East conflict.
KENNETH STEIN: I would say that this is basically a secular conflict in terms of two national groupings, one that started way ahead of the other-namely Jewish nationalism, and Arab/Palestinian nationalism, which started in the ’40s or the ’30s, and has caught up to Zionism, caught up to Jewish nationalism.
KRISTIN MCHUGH: Common Ground is a program on world affairs and the people who shape events. It’s produced by the Stanley Foundation. I’m Kristin McHugh.
PORTER: And I’m Keith Porter. Many former presidents seem to fade into the history books once they’re out of office. But for Jimmy Carter the US presidency is just one of his many lifetime accomplishments.
MCHUGH: Common Ground’s Hélène Papper recently talked with President Carter about the Carter Center, his Atlanta-based foreign policy think tank. Carter says there are several reasons why he chose to stay involved in international affairs after leaving office.
PRESIDENT JIMMY CARTER: Well, it wasn’t long after I left the White House that I realized that there was a great need in the world for America to be more deeply involved in the Third World nations. It never reached the headline stage but those needs are profoundly deep and quite often not understood. So Rosalyn and I have visited now 120 countries in the world. And we’ve established programs in 65 nations, usually the poorest and most destitute and most needy and most forgotten countries in the world. Of those 65, by the way, 35 of them are in Africa. And we have evolved a series of programs specifically to help those people in need. The Carter Center spent more than half its total budget and have more than half our personnel working on health programs-to immunize children, to eradicate disease, and to treat people in some of the most isolated villages in the world, where fairly simple treatment can correct a horrendous illness that afflicts those families. We’ve been lucky enough to get very great help financially from the major pharmaceutical companies who produce medicines, fairly inexpensive medicines, which they give to us free of charge. And our job is to go into the villages and work with individual families to get the medicines to them.
Another thing that we do is to analyze all the conflicts in the world. Of the total number of conflicts, we have 110 on our list. About 70 of them erupt into violence every year. I think last year there [were] 71. And 30 of these conflicts are what we call a major war. A major war is one by our definition where more than 1,000 soldiers have been killed on the battlefield. And in modern-day war, which are almost always civil wars inside a country, and rarely between two nations, about nine civilians perish for every soldier killed on the battlefield. The civilians die from stray bullets, bombs, land mines, missiles, as well as deliberate deprivation of food and shelter, medical care. We try to resolve these disputes as well as analyze them. And we are always involved in negotiating or mediating between two warring parties to try to bring a cease-fire or an end to a conflict, or to sometimes to prevent a conflict.
And the last thing I’ll mention, we have found in the last 15 years that when it’s impossible to orchestrate a negotiation because the warring despise each other so deeply, quite often we’ve been able to go into a country and offer to hold an honest and fair election. And if the two warring leaders are convinced that they cannot prevail on the battlefield we tell them, “Why don’t you let us come in. We’ll hold an honest election, a monitored honest election, and we’re sure that the people of your country will choose the right person to be the leader.” And if both sides agree, then we do this for those countries. We’ve done this in about 30 nations in recent years.
HÉLÈNE PAPPER: Actually, in recent months the Carter Center has helped monitor elections in several countries, including Mexico, Peru, Venezuela, Nicaragua. What did you learn from the monitoring? And how do you feel the people of these countries have reacted to your involvement in their elections?
PRESIDENT CARTER: Well, it’s probably obvious to every listener here that every country is different. Sometimes we go in to help hold the first democratic election to replace a dictator. For instance, last year we did the election in Indonesia, which it had two dictators over a period of 37 years, I believe. And it was the first democratic election, and we monitored it. We went also to Nigeria to help replace a terrible dictator with a democratically elected government. Sometimes an existing democracy is in danger. For instance, in, like in Jamaica or in Venezuela, where a ruling party is so powerful that the opposition parties are afraid they will steal the election unless we come in with other monitors. And so we go in with the approval of the ruling party and the major opposition parties only. Which does exclude a number of opportunities for us, because unless we get the support of the ruling party, the central election commission, and the major opposition parties, we don’t go in. We can’t go in just representing one party to the exclusion of the others. So on the average, the Carter Center monitors about three or four elections every year. And then we expect to be in Peru in April for a very important election there. So this is the kind of thing that we do in the arena of elections.
HÉLÈNE PAPPER: In November the Carter Center closed down its office in Liberia. Why? What happened?
PRESIDENT CARTER: The Carter Center has been involved in Liberia regularly for more than 10 years, when the country was divided between Charles Taylor’s organization in the interior and a very tiny area around Monrovia, the capital, which was controlled by an international team of soldiers. We saw a very good election take place a few years ago, when there was an enormous outpouring of voters. The Carter Center was one of the monitors. Charles Taylor was elected President, with 62 percent of the total votes, I think, over a very fine group of opponents. And we had hopes that Charles Taylor would honor the basic rudiments of democracy and human rights, so we maintained an office there to help with this, reaching this goal. Unfortunately, it’s becoming increasingly obvious to us that Charles Taylor does not wish to have multiparty democracy as a permanent facet of political life in Liberia. It’s obvious to us that he has been involved in a deleterious or a damaging way inside Sierra Leone and other neighboring countries, and that some of the, much of the revenue that comes into the government of Liberia is not used for its budgeted purpose. So we’ve given Charles Taylor a number of personal expressions of concern, and since he has not responded favorably we have decided to close our office in Liberia, in Monrovia, and withdraw. Regretfully. And my hope is that the international community will take note of our expression of concern and that there will be continued pressure on him to realize the dreams and hopes of the Liberian people to have a real honest government based on democratic principles and with a respect for human rights. At this point those terms don’t apply to Liberia, and it’s very unfortunate.
PAPPER: Do you often find yourself in this kind of situation, where you’re faced with the eventuality of withdrawing from a country where you’ve put in efforts for several years?
PRESIDENT CARTER: Well, on occasion. And I think that’s part of the reason for our great influence. For instance, we had a major effort in Peru to monitor that election, along with others. And to certify to the Peruvian people and to the international community that the election was fair. It became obvious to us that President Fujimori was stealing the election. He was prohibited by the constitution from serving a third five-year term. He peremptorily replaced the members of the supreme court and put his own people in there, who ruled-illegally in my opinion-that he could serve, run for another term. That was the first warning signal. Later, he made it almost impossible for his political opponents to mount a campaign-to have access to the state-controlled media. There was a lot of intimidation. There was obvious and proven bribery. So rather than our staying in Peru and being used to endorse an election that was obviously fraudulent, we withdrew in protest, and with a lot of, with an adequate amount of publicity. As did other monitoring groups, including the Organization of American States. So we do withdraw in protest from a country that doesn’t measure up to minimal standards of internationally accepted democracy, freedom, and human rights.
PAPPER: You’re involved in the political aspect of things. You’re also involved in the medical aspect of things, and you have a strong medical branch. Your center is right now working on the Guinea worm disease. Is there a little healthy competition going on with the polio eradication right next door at the CDC?
PRESIDENT CARTER: As a matter of fact we’ve targeted polio and Guinea worm. And the World Health Organization and others are basically responsible for the polio eradication. The Carter Center has been the leading and driving force in the eradication of Guinea worm. When we first started with this eradication, there were 3.2 million cases that we found. We now have less than 60,000, which is a 98 percent reduction. And in a number of countries polio has been permanently eradicated. About two-thirds of the remaining cases are in the southern part of Sudan, where a horrendous civil war prevents our getting to the villages to teach the people how to eradicate the disease. But with a very fine new grant that’s just been announced, from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, we are reconstituting our task force on analyzing the diseases to be eradicated. And we’ll start having a rejuvenated effort to do this. CDC, by the way, is our partner in almost everything we do in the health field. In fact, quite often, as is the case with Guinea worm, we will identify the person in CDC who maybe has devoted his or her life to a particular disease, and if the Carter Center adopts this disease as one of our targets, we bring that person into the Carter Center to work full time with us, but still in close relationship with the Centers for Disease Control.
PAPPER: Well, you’re definitely at the forefront of a lot of international events. We can see you’re a busy man. Are you planning on taking a break anytime soon? You’re actively involved not only in the Carter Center, but also with Habitat for Humanity. What are your plans?
PRESIDENT CARTER: Well, over the period of the last few years Rosalyn and I have substantially decreased the amount of time and effort we put into specific programs. We have a wonderful executive director now of the Carter Center. But we still go to the countries involved, we still make the basic decisions, ultimately, with our board of trustees. But it’s no doubt that at our age-we’re both past 70 now-our personal time has to be less than it used to be. But we still enjoy our work, and we’re in good health, thank goodness. And so we have a very good program prepared for transferring our leadership to others when Rosalyn and I are no longer able to serve at the Carter Center. But so far we’re still pretty deeply involved, as you say.
PAPPER: When you take a look at your career, are you happy? Have you fulfilled your childhood dream?
PRESIDENT CARTER: When I was a child my only dream was to go to the US Naval Academy and to be a naval officer. And I did that for 11 years and then I stepped down. And then my next dream was to be a successful businessman, which I was, in a small town. And then I got involved in politics. I wanted to be in the Georgia Senate and then I wanted to be governor, then I wanted to be president. I’ve realized all those dreams. I would say that my life after the White House has been perhaps most enjoyable and most gratifying of all the other periods of my life. Because we’re doing exciting things, adventurous things, unpredictable things, innovative things, and working with a lot of other organizations and individual people around the world to bring some relief to the suffering of people who all too often are forgotten.
PORTER: That is former President Jimmy Carter.
MCHUGH: The history behind the conflict in the Middle East, next on Common Ground.
KENNETH STEIN: This is today a conflict over prerogative and land. It’s a conflict over who’s going to control what territory, under what conditions will these respective sides live with one another, how they will interact with one another, and what their future relationships will be.
MCHUGH: The various conflicts in the Middle East continue to make headlines on a daily basis. But the reasons surrounding the conflict are often forgotten.
PORTER: Common Ground’s Hélène Papper talks with Carter Center Middle East Fellow and Emory Professor Kenneth Stein about the deep-seated history behind the Arab-Israeli conflict.
KENNETH STEIN: I would start with the Middle East’s geographic location and the fact that it is a land in between has made it an area of focus and attention to outside powers. It’s not easy to get through the region. And those who wanted to get through the region had to figure out how to do it, ultimately building, let’s say, the Suez Canal in the 1860s. There’s the geography of the region. There is also the topography, which is harsh, sparse, which means there’s very little cultivable land available, which means those who own land are those who remain in power, and generally have been, well into the 20th century. This is, of course, before oil was discovered. And the third point I guess I’d make is the origins of the three major religions-Islam, Judaism, and Christianity, and because they all find their cradle of origins in the Middle East, particularly in the Holy Land, what you have is, you have competition between respective religions for control.
Once you understand that Western ideas and Western powers came to and through the region, either to protect religious identity or to attack religious identity for one reason or another; for trade, to protect trade, to enhance trade, to deny others access to trade; that gives you the history well into the 19th and into the 20th century, when the powers, the European powers, had deep interest in North Africa and the Middle East. They tried to deny the area to Germany at a certain point and to Russia at a certain point. You have the evolution of nationalism, the idea that a nation-state can form as an identity for people that goes beyond someone else’s affinity at the time, an affinity for location or locality or family or a tribe. And it also means that you’re not identifying yourself on religion. You’re not being Jewish or you’re not being Islamic or you’re not being Christian, but you’re living within a border, within a finite area.
With that as a background you begin to understand how Jewish nationalism or Zionism comes into competition with Arab nationalism in the Middle East and ultimately with Palestinian Arab nationalism.
PAPPER: If we come to understand then the conflict between both nationalistic tendencies, the Jewish nationalistic tendency versus the Arab nationalistic tendency, what’s stronger? Is anyone correct? Does anyone have a stronger claim to the area?
STEIN: It depends again. The answer is how far back do you want to go? Each national grouping has a monotheistic religion-or in the case of the Arabs, two monotheistic religions-on their side. Each one of them have books and prophets. And each one of them follow, sometimes very religiously-and I mean that both in the capital “R” and the small “r” sense-what God promised and what he didn’t promise. If you believe in the promise made to the Jewish people, that he promised the land to the Jewish people, the Holy Land to the Jewish people, then Jews have a claim. Is it a Biblical claim? Well, if you don’t believe in their book and you don’t believe in their prophets, then do they have a claim?
But I generally take the Arab-Israeli conflict when I study it and when I teach it, I start it essentially sometime in the middle of the 19th century. You have Syrian Arab nationalism that emerges. You have Zionism which emerges in Europe at first. Jordan is a country that’s created by great powers out of the desert in 1921. Arab nationalism in Palestine, that is something distinctly called Palestinian Arab nationalism, is something that emerges in the ’20s, ’30s, and ’40s, in part in reaction to the British who are in occupation of the Middle East. And you have Arab nationalism that really begins to crystallize and form in the ’40s. And the major date of formation, of course, would be Israel’s creation in 1948 when the Palestinians recognize and realize that someone else has come and put themselves in this area and they themselves, find themselves without turf of their own. And Palestinians find themselves displaced. They found, find themselves in refugee camps.
It takes the Palestinian community almost a half a century to assert its own identity in the sense of being able to speak on its own behalf and not have someone else speak for it. And once that happens, then the Palestinians are taking control of their own diplomatic future. And that only happens in the late 1990s. And the Israelis feel more willing to speak to the Palestinians today than they were 50 years ago, because they feel much more secure about their future. And that’s all very positive in terms of reaching an understanding between the respective national groupings, ’cause they have to figure out how they’re gonna share this land west of the Jordan River and they can only speak for themselves.
PAPPER: In the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, religion is often used as the predominant reason for the conflict. But is it really? I mean, you talk about people who’ve lived in refugee camps since 1948. Is religion really what they’re thinking about? Or actually is the conflict land-based and economically driven?
STEIN: I think the conflict has to do with prerogative identity and the need to be able to say, “I have a state.” Religion was not the basic reason why the Arab-Israeli conflict began. It began because there were two nationalisms. I mean, Arab nationalism has within its mix Muslims and Christians, so you can’t say it was a Muslim movement, you can’t say it was a Christian movement. Certainly within Zionism the background is Judaism, but you certainly can’t argue that the founders of modern Zionism were Orthodox Jews. If anything they were about as secular as you’re gonna find, and more Reform than most Reformed Jews are in the United States today. So, I mean the fact that you have a historic connection to a Jewish identity doesn’t mean that you’re praying three times a day. And the fact that you have an identity to Muslim tradition doesn’t mean that you’re praying five times a day.
So one has to be really careful about how you use the word “religion” and how you define either Judaism or Islam in this conflict. I would say that this is basically a secular conflict in terms of two national groupings, one that started way ahead of the other-namely Jewish nationalism, and Arab/Palestinian nationalism, which started in the ’40s or the ’30s, and has caught up to Zionism, caught up to Jewish nationalism. This is today a conflict over prerogative and land. It’s a conflict over who’s going to control what territory, under what conditions will these respective sides live with one another, how they will interact with one another, and what their future relationships will be. No, I don’t think this is basically a religious conflict. I think it has become a potentially dangerous conflict because we have in the last 10 or 15 years the use of religion as a motivation to organize people’s attitudes toward defense of either Jewish nationalism or Palestinian Arab nationalism.
PAPPER: You touched on an interesting point. That is, you talked about the two sides of the conflict. You also said a little earlier that the role of the Arabs in the Palestinian conflict is a little uncertain because maybe they don’t have the money to help the Palestinians. Yet a great majority of Palestinians live in Jordan and Syria. And they’ve been very badly treated in those countries as well. So why do you think the focus of the attention seems to always be on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict?
STEIN: It’s a good question. If Jordan had its choice in 1948, when it went to war with Israel, I don’t think one of the consequences of the war that Jordan would have felt that it was going to have to take in well over a million Palestinians. It didn’t want to change its demography. It was forced to by the results of war. Same thing with the Syrians, same thing in Lebanon. There may be half a million today, in the year 2000, maybe half a million Palestinians who live in refugee camps in Lebanon as well. The Palestinians were not treated well. They were the lower segment of social classes, they were denied opportunities for jobs, they were denied civic equality, they were trod upon, if you will. Not in a negative sense of people going into their homes or stealing things from them, but in the sense that they were treated as second-class or third-class citizens. And being treated as a pariah is something that people don’t forget. You pass that on from generation to generation. It’s far easier for the Palestinians living in Lebanon or living in Syria or living in Jordan-knowing who their hosts are-it’s far easier to direct your anger and your attention and your anguish at the source, or original sin, namely the creation of the state of Israel, than it is to turn around to the Jordanian king and say, you know, “You’ve been really nasty to us over the last 50 years. You should have done this, this, this, and this, and this.”
Instead, direction of anger is focused on Israel. Because Israel is seen as that country that in 1948 created the problem. Little is said about the Palestinian participation in the creation of their own problem. It wasn’t like all of a sudden there were 600,000 Jews in Palestine and they created a state. This is a process that went on from the 1880s through 1948. And little is said in the, amongst Palestinians about how their own grandfathers or great-grandfathers either didn’t react, failed to react, or even collaborated and cooperated with Zionists in allowing the Jewish to come into being. But it’s as if history only began in ’48. And recent scholarship tells us that history began way before 1948 in terms of the evolution of the conflict between Israelis and Palestinian Arabs living there.
PAPPER: Now, peace has been a central issue in the Middle East. Iran is reaching out to Middle Eastern and Western counterparts and opening itself up to some type of dialogue. Egypt and Israel have made peace. Can there only be stability in the Middle East if all countries make peace?
STEIN: This is not a peace process. This is a negotiating process. Peace is the objective. What people are doing is they are engaging in discussions with one another for the purpose of achieving a thing called peace, a status that’s called peace. Which means prolonged nonwar. I think what you have now is you have negotiations going on between the respective sides about how each side will behave with the other. And what will be permitted in behavior and what will not be permitted. To say that this is a peace process or to say that Egypt and Israel are at peace is not really to tell the whole story, because there are not deep tentacles that reach into Egyptian society for peace with Israel. Actually, there’s no cultural reason for Egyptians to want to make peace with Israel. This is a Muslim Arab country with 7,000 years of special history. Why should they all of a sudden want to embrace the state of Israel, which is a Jewish state, that’s been there for 50-plus years? It’s gonna take a generation or two or three or four for even Egyptians to accept the reality that there is a Jewish state next door, that may be Jews in terms of their identity, but they’re not necessarily practicing Jews. There is still within the Middle East tension between respective countries. Tension that has to do with resources, tension that has to do with location, tension that has to do with sovereignty, tension that has to do with history. And those tensions have not abated. We can’t expect the Middle East to be a region of the world that’s like the United States lives with Canada or the United States lives with Mexico. It’s probably not gonna happen.
PAPPER: So in essence is peace too utopian? Is it a concept that maybe shouldn’t have so much focus?
STEIN: I think it’s always good to reach for the stars. I think it’s always good to have a great objective. I think the best that you can hope for between Israelis and Palestinians, as I said earlier, a prolonged interlude between major conflicts. And hope that that interlude goes 20, 30, 50, 70, 90 years.
PAPPER: Ken Stein is a Professor at Emory University. He is also Carter Center Fellow. For Common Ground, I’m Hélène Papper.
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